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The myth of Gove's "popular" free schools

Just 28 per cent of free schools have reached their capacity for first year intake.

Just 28 per cent of free schools have reached their capacity for first year intake.
Education Secretary Michael Gove at the Conservative conference in Birmingham in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

The Department for Education recently boasted that free schools are proving "hugely popular" with parents, a statement widely accepted as truth in Westminster. But as so often, the data tells a different story. New research by Labour shows that just 49 (28 per cent) of the 174 free schools opened since 2011 reached their capacity for first year intake.

To those who have studied the polling, this will come as no surprise. A recent YouGov survey for the Times found that just 27 per cent back the schools with 47 per cent opposed. In addition, 66 cent agree with Labour and the Lib Dems that the schools should only be able to employ qualified teachers and 56 per cent believe the national curriculum should be compulsory for all institutions.

It would be one thing to lavish state funding on free schools were there an overall surplus of places. But it is another when an extra 240,000 primary school places are needed by this September merely to keep pace with the birth rate. Yet at present, a third of free schools are located in areas without a shortage of places. 

Michael Gove's defence is that the schools offer parents choice in areas where there may no be shortage of places but there is a lack of good schools. As he said last year: "We have more than doubled funding for new school places and we are also setting up great new free schools, which are giving parents a choice of high quality school places in areas Labour neglected". The Department for Education emphasises that it has provided an additional £5bn to councils to create new places, double the amount spent by the last government over the same period. 

But whether this will be enough is unclear. As Conservative councillor David Simmonds, an executive member of the Local Government Association, has warned, "the process of opening up much-needed schools is being impaired by a one-size-fits-all approach and in some cases by the presumption in favour of free schools and academies." Judging by their response to date, parents agree.